The Harperman imbroglio

This little song, written by Environment Canada scientist Tony Turner, has received a lot of media attention:

CBC: Harperman case: Can public servants be political activists?

The Guardian: Canada government suspends scientist for folk song about prime minister

Both the song and the public responses point to one of the big unsettled questions about the appropriate conduct of the public service. What are citizens who are employed to serve the public interest meant to do when the country is badly governed by their political bosses?

Astronauts and human limitation

It’s interesting to note that, with all the technical challenges involved in sending people on interplanetary journeys, managing interpersonal conflicts remains a key requirement:

The eight-month mission [locked in a small dome to simulate a trip to Mars] members went through some issues, for instance, though they thankfully solved them and made sure the project would go as planned. “I think one of the lessons is that you really can’t prevent interpersonal conflicts. It is going to happen over these long-duration missions, even with the very best people,” HI-SEAS chief investigator Kim Binsted told AFP. “But what you can do is help people be resilient so they respond well to the problems and can resolve them and continue to perform well as a team.”

It reminds me of my favourite fact about astronaut Julie Payette, who tells audiences that she has never been able to touch her toes without bending her legs. As someone who received (poor) grades in high school for (lack of) flexibility, it’s a relief to know that someone who flew on the Space Shuttle twice was similarly incapable.

Hedges and Fithian on non-violence

Chris Hedges’ worthwhile new book Wages of Rebellion includes some interesting discussion about the role of nonviolence in activist movements, and the justifications and criticisms deployed about it. He quotes Lisa Fithian’s “Open Letter to the Occupy Movement” to explain why non-violence is a more inclusive approach:

Lack of agreements [to be non-violent] privileges the young over the old, the loud voices over the soft, the fast over the slow, the able-bodied over those with disabilities, the citizen over the immigrant, white folks over people of color, those who can do damage and flee the scene over those who are left to face the consequences.

It’s a good addition to the common justifications for non-violence: that violence is inherently ethically unacceptable, even for a good cause and against the violent; that violence is ineffective at creating political change; and that challenging governments and corporations using violence involves confronting them in the way where they are most powerful.

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness”

Since incorporating as a non-profit, has been going through some serious growing pains, particularly when it comes to governance and decision-making structures. The group seeks to be profoundly democratic, with open membership and a philosophy where people choose their own level of involvement. At the same time, we have been experiencing difficulties deciding which individuals or sub-groups should make particular decisions, and through what method.

In order to help play a constructive role in the group’s evolution, I have been reading about non-profit and NGO governance, both from an official and legal perspective and from a more theoretical one. Jo Freeman’s 1970 article “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” makes some interesting points about groups that are consciously or unconsciously becoming more formalized:

For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit. The rules of decision-making must be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are formalized. This is not to say that formalization of a structure of a group will destroy the informal structure. It usually doesn’t. But it does hinder the informal structure from having predominant control and make available some means of attacking it if the people involved are not at least responsible to the needs of the group at large. “Structurelessness” is organizationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group, only whether or not to have a formally structured one. Therefore the word will not be used any longer except to refer to the idea it represents. Unstructured will refer to those groups which have not been deliberately structured in a particular manner. Structured will refer to those which have. A Structured group always has formal structure, and may also have an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in Unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites. has had some sort of formal structure for a long time. Initially established as a University of Toronto club, there has long been an elected executive and a constitution which, among other things, defines their roles. Still, one of the main challenges facing us now is professionalization and working out a more effective division of labour. In order to achieve those things without abandoning democratic ideals, we need to take ideas like Freeman’s seriously.